Photo: Billy Napier; Credit: Alex Shepherd
Florida's "GameChanger" special teams unit, a title coined by first-year head coach Billy Napier, has arguably changed games in the opponent's favor more than the Gators' throughout the 2022 season.
The season-long trend was put on display once again this past weekend when Florida was shockingly defeated by Vanderbilt on Saturday. A first-half blunder by UF's punt return team provided the Commodores an eight-point lead before halftime that, ultimately, the Gators could not usurp.
"I know for the specialists we thrive to, I guess, if you are doing your job you’re going under the radar. You’re not really checked upon," third-year sophomore punter Jeremy Crawshaw remarked on Monday. "If you get into the spotlight, it’s probably not a good thing unless you are doing really, really well."
Crawshaw has avoided the spotlight this season for a lot of the right reasons. He ranks third in the country (among qualifying punters: 2.5 punts per team's games played) for averaging 46.9 yards per punt and eighth in the nation for his 43.5 net yards on average. 14 of his 28 punts have been pinned inside the 20-yard line.
His teammates, for the most part, haven't been as fortunate on special teams.
The season began with an extended competition at kicker between walk-on Adam Mihalek and true freshman Trey Smack. Smack dealt with an unspecified injury in fall camp that limited his availability, giving Mihalek a leg up on the job entering Week 1.
Mihalek was strong as a placekicker to begin the year, perfect across three field goals and seven extra point attempts in the first three games. He struggled with kickoff length, though, prompting Smack to take over as the team's kickoff specialist from Week 5 until the freshman suffered an injury in Week 10.
Inconsistency has bled into Mihalek's placekicking since Smack's brief emergence. He's gone 9-of-15 on field goals since Week 4 and missed his first extra point of the year against the Commodores, one of several mistakes UF's special teams made on Saturday.
The first specific aspect Napier pointed to while describing Florida's loss on Monday was the first-half error, cornerback Jason Marshall Jr.'s muffled punt late in the second quarter. Marshall tried to haul in a punt within ten yards of the goal line but miscalculated the kick's trajectory, leading the ball to bounce off of him and toward the endzone where Vanderbilt's Wesley Schelling recovered it for six points.
Napier deemed Marshall's muff a product of losing the team's No. 1 punt returner, Xzavier Henderson, as well as backup returner Ricky Pearsall to injury. Marshall, meanwhile, admitted that he struggled to see the ball approaching due to the glare of the sun in his eyes.
"Nobody wants to do their job more for the team than Jason Marshall," Napier claimed on Sunday. "He made an in-game decision there, he made a mistake in the game, much like a lot of our players in the game made mistakes."
Still, while understandable with context, it was yet another debacle for a return team that has been underwhelming for the majority of the season.
Florida ranks 10th in the SEC in average kick return yards (20.4 per return) and tied for eighth in average punt return yards (8.8). The Gators fall into the half of the league that has not scored a touchdown via kick or punt return this year.
Henderson has notably fumbled three across his 11 returns this year, muffing returns against Eastern Washington and South Carolina while losing the ball out of bounds at the end of a big return against Missouri, although each was recovered by UF.
To give the Gators some credit for making adjustments. running back Trevor Etienne has notably improved Florida's kick return average since taking the role from Henderson a few weeks into the season. Of the SEC players with at least five kick returns this season, Etienne's 24.7 yards per return average ranks fifth in the conference this year.
Otherwise, there just isn't much praise to be given in any special teams category.
Florida is prone to shooting itself in the foot on special teams, too. The Gators rank tied for eighth in the SEC with three teams for their 11 special teams penalties enforced, as well as 11th in the conference for their 13 missed tackles across the unit.
What kind of advice does Crawshaw, a comparatively seasoned veteran on Florida's special teams unit despite 2022 being his second year as a starter, give his specialist teammates when they're under the spotlight for the wrong reasons?
“You know I went through that stuff last year, I had a couple of woeful punts and put us in bad positions. Especially for us, it’s pure mental," Crawshaw explained. "We can go out there, every athlete can go out there and give effort but our position is pure skill, it doesn’t matter how much effort you put in if you are not skillful at it, you’re going to be terrible.
"So for us, it’s pure mental. If any woes have happened it’s always about getting the guys, like, 'Hey, it’s the next one. That happened, it’s a one-off, the next one is going to go for you.' So, just got to have that next gig mindset, whatever happens, happens. Just shrug it off, smile, you are still alive. It’s just a game.”
Much has been made of Florida's special teams coaching structure as mistakes have added up throughout the campaign.
The Gators lack a special teams coordinator — a position typically handed to on-field assistant coaches on top of their positional duties — leaving "GameChanger Coordinator" Chris Couch, an off-field analyst, in charge of the unit despite his limitations to physically coach in games and practices per NCAA rules.
Below Couch on the special teams' organizational chart are Florida's positional coaches, each assistant responsible for coaching an individual unit such as the coverage, return and kick-blocking teams on the field.
Napier utilized the approach during his head coaching tenure at Louisiana and is confident that it will yield similarly successful results at Florida, even if they aren't apparent yet.
"It's the same blueprint we've used in the past and one that's been very effective for us," Napier stated. "It will continue to be effective for us."
Crawshaw admitted that Florida's specialists needed time to adjust to the staff's approach — especially considering the youth across the unit, particularly underclassmen who didn't play special teams in high school — but suggested that things have begun to click as of late.
“Look, at first we had to get used to it, but now we’re meshing," Crawshaw said. "We know what works and we just keep the ball rolling kind of thing. We’ve found what works with some kids, what works with others and what’s best for their talent and skill set and we work upon it."
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